Why Do We Love Coming-of-Age Stories So Much?

I read—and watch—a lot of stories about people growing up. Late in 2019, I officially narrowed the focus of my PhD to specifically zero in on YA fiction, which I was reading and analysing an awful lot of anyway. I also write a lot about anime, and I can’t help but notice that the series that really seem to carve out a special place in my heart—and jog my thinking brain—are the ones that deal with coming-of-age stories, or other examinations of the weird pocket of time between “youth” and “adulthood”. And gosh, it’s a weird pocket of time, huh?

As I write lecture material, and find myself going off on tangents enthusiastically explaining the literary and entertainment value of YA to my students, I also find myself wondering… well, how did I get here? Why YA? That’s a tongue-twister, Alex, why’d you even make me read that? But more to the point, why do we—as writers, readers, audiences, and a massive publishing industry—return consistently to the coming-of-age story, to examinations of youth, to high schools and final-summers-before-graduations and that weird transitional space between childhood and adulthood?

Well, I could get all Joseph Campbell on you and suggest something about how stories of “leaving the nest”, experiencing a ritual quest of rites of passage, and coming out the other side a grown human, are embedded in prehistoric tradition and are some of the tales closest to our hearts culturally speaking. And you know I have my beef with Campbell (affectionately so), but I reckon there’s something to his suggestion that this is an archetype fundamental to storytelling as a form, and I reckon there’s also something to his fondness for patterns.

Because, as I’m sure we all know, the growth from what we call adolescence to what we call adulthood is… rarely nicely defined, easy to map out, and suitably momentous in real life. Pinning things down into story-patterns is a surefire way to help make sense of things.

My own “coming-of-age” went past in such a blast that I was sort of left in the dust, looking back and forth down the highway going “huh? Wait, huh? What? How’d I get here?” I’m sure a lot of other people—in my generation or otherwise—feel the same way. I’m sure there are a couple aspects from my life ages 16 – 18 that you could tease out into a nice narrative arc if you needed to, but for the most part, I think my (and most people’s) adolescences don’t lend themselves particularly well to being storified.

There are ups and downs, there are significant moments, but most real lives don’t follow a nice pattern where you can pinpoint a particular moment that marks the peak of your “character development” and a logical endpoint where you finish your story arc and Become a Grownup. It’s often a lot messier than that, and indeed, we keep growing long after what might be pitched as the ending of the story if our lives were mapped onto a YA novel. I’m still learning, still changing, still “developing as a character”, and frankly, I feel like I’m still “growing up”. I don’t feel like I hit a certain point and “came of age”. What the heck does that even mean?

I have this question personally, but it’s also a systemic one. For Millennials and Gen Z particularly, many of the traditional markers of adulthood are becoming increasingly inaccessible, and the borders between “youth” and “maturity” are becoming increasingly blurry. Once, we had nice milestones like buying your first home, or getting married, or settling into the career that would see you through to retirement. In our current world—for various reasons—these milestones can no longer be considered universal.

Maybe they were always a bit idealistic, but still, whether they were a truth of life or not, the narrative of them is embedded in our social language and our very concept of the passage of time. Which means that people “coming of age” now are looking at a roadmap that no longer leads them anywhere. The signs are still there, but the road is gone, the tarmac ripped up and the horizon blocked by the apartments they’re building on the spot where it used to be. There’s a big sign out the front with lots of concept photos of well-dressed people laughing in minimalist living rooms and on white balconies. And you think “well, that’s clearly not talking to me! I can’t afford that!” and go back to staring at the old paper road map in distress.

What is an adult, even, in this shifting social climate? How can you tell when you are one? You certainly don’t spin around like a Sim on your eighteenth birthday and noticeably, physically, enter a new phase of life, with new activities, aspirations, and outfits unlocked to you automatically (well, in legal terms, some new things are unlocked, but apart from that there’s no signifier you can feel). So maybe this is why we love coming-of-age stories so very much: as young readers, we look forward, seeking the solace and guidance that there’s a neat pattern in place. As older readers, we look backwards, taking comfort in these fictional adolescences that are so much more nicely laid-out than ours were.

There is a great joy in coming-of-age stories. The journey of self-discovery and radical self-love in Felix Ever After made me woop for joy. Watching the tandem emotional and physical journeys in A Place Further Than the Universe was immensely rewarding, and watching the characters get their very tangible sense of catharsis out of a terrible and intangible grief was great. Summer of Salt contextualises growth and bravery through magic, transformation and lightning-powers folded through a very harrowing and down-to-earth story. We Used to be Friends wrecked me with its unexpectedly nuanced and real depiction of complicated characters and friendships.

Every Heart a Doorway plays with the traditional expectations of the coming-of-age story, celebrating the fact that its weird protagonists stray from the usual path and find their true homes elsewhere. ToraDora! makes me laugh and cry every time with how weirdly authentic it is, despite its zany comedy. Night in the Woods is an unflinching portrait of early-twenties ennui. Life is Strange, for its flaws, tells a riveting thematic story about embracing your future—and letting yourself grow up—rather than running away from it and trying to stay in the perceived innocence of childhood. Revolutionary Girl Utena look, if I start talking about all the reasons that’s a fascinating and wonderful exploration of adolescence, we’ll be here all day.

They’re just… argh they’re just really good. There are a myriad of types of stories under the banner of the coming-of-age: goofy tales of first love and summer romance, heartbreaking explorations of complicated morality, wild adventures, quiet introspective stories, magic, monsters, montages, mayhem, validation, catharsis, escapism. This liminal space between the supposed borders of childhood and the supposed borders of adulthood is a canvas for all sorts of themes, narrative arcs, and social interrogations to play out.

You experience so many things for the first time, you change so much, you learn multitudes about the world and about yourself. It’s a time of great turbulence and great happiness and great awfulness and great weirdness. No wonder we want to return to it and bottle it in story form, whether for a sense of control in a chaotic world, a sense of nostalgia, a sense of catharsis, or anything else. Humans love patterns. Adolescence is fundamentally weird. Perhaps it’s in our nature to want to jam the two together and try to wrestle a strange and confusing time of life into a recognisable shape. We have so few roadmaps these days, after all, maybe it’s wishful thinking to try and set “growing up” on a nice linear path.

In any case, whether that’s a satisfying answer or not, there’s no denying the comfort and the joy and the mental stimulus I get from returning to coming-of-age stories, and I can’t see myself putting them down anytime soon.

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3 Comments

Filed under Archetypes and Genre

3 responses to “Why Do We Love Coming-of-Age Stories So Much?

  1. Great post! I love coming of age stories too (both to read and write) but there is also a correlation with coming out/identity stories – the same story mechanics apply there too; and these types of stories also have me hooked and returning time and time again.

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